The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Toys "R" Us, alleging the company broke the law when staff at its Columbia store refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for a job applicant who is deaf.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, says the retailer discriminated against the woman, Shakirra Thomas, after she applied for a position at the store in 2011. It alleges the company violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" for job applicants and workers with disabilities.
In a statement, EEOC District Director Spencer H. Lewis said employers must reasonably accommodate disabled applicants during interviews, unless doing so would be "a significant difficulty or expense."
"Given the size and resources of Toys 'R' Us, it is difficult to understand how it would have been an undue hardship for such a large retailer to provide an interpreter when asked to do so," he said.
A Toys "R" Us spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
According to the complaint, Thomas is deaf and communicates through American Sign Language, reading lips and written words. In October 2011, she applied for a "team member" position at Toys "R" Us, and the store contacted her by phone to invite her to a group interview that November. Her mother told the store that Thomas is deaf and requested a sign-language interpreter for the interview.
The store said Thomas could attend the interview but would have to provide her own interpreter, the lawsuit says. Her mother attended and interpreted for her.
Later, her mother contacted the store on Thomas' behalf to check the status of her application, but got no response. The lawsuit alleges Thomas could perform the duties of the job but the store did not hire her because she is deaf.
The EEOC filed the lawsuit after it tried to reach a settlement with the company, officials said. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Toys "R" Us to carry out policies ensuring that people with disabilities do not face discrimination in the hiring process, as well as unspecified compensation for Thomas.
Advocates for people with disabilities say the lawsuit brings to light a common experience for many who are looking for work.
"This case is an example of one reason why unemployment of people with disabilities is so much higher than people without disabilities," said Lauren Young, director of litigation at the Maryland Disability Law Center. "Because people aren't given a fair shot."
She said employers might make incorrect guesses about a person's abilities and what it would take to accommodate the employee.
"It sounds like they didn't even bother to find out and just made an assumption," she said of the Toys "R" Us case.
The National Association of the Deaf, based in Silver Spring, gets "numerous complaints" similar to the one described in the lawsuit, said CEO Howard Rosenblum.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law for nearly 23 years, and there is no excuse for failing to provide communication access or refusing to hire deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," Rosenblum said in an email. "Like everyone else, deaf and hard-of-hearing people want to work, and employers need to just give us a chance to prove our skills."